The superlatives tend to pile up pretty quickly when it comes to the rigid airship Hindenburg, the pride of the Deutsche Zeppelin-Reederei line. It was the longest aircraft of any type at 245 meters (803 feet). Its 16 gas cells held up to 200,000 cubic meters (7,062,900 cubic feet) of hydrogen gas. Four 1050 hp Daimler-Benz DB 602 diesel motors sped the mighty airship along at speeds up to 135km/h (85 mph) with a maximum range of 14,000km (8,700 miles). Up to 70 passengers traveled in unrivaled luxury, served by a crew of from 40 to 72; gourmet meals (although the final meal served on board was a bit sketchy); comfortable (though small) cabins with running water; and a smoking lounge, where one could enjoy a Hindenburg Cocktail or two. And, of course, the famous Blüthner aluminum piano, covered in pigskin, for the passengers’ pleasure. Think of that, the next time you’re stuffed into a tiny airline seat and stuck on a runway for a couple of hours.
It’s a shame, though, that the Hindenburg is remembered today primarily for its tragic final flight. On May 6, 1937, it arrived at its American terminus, the Lakehurst Naval Air Station, at the end of the first flight of the 1937 season. Vented hydrogen ignited (although there are many other theories), and the mighty airship crashed and burned. There were 36 passengers and 61 crew on board; 13 passengers and 22 crew died, as did one member of the ground crew. But it wasn’t history’s worst airship disaster; the US Navy’s USS Akron lost 73 of its crew of 76 when it crashed off the New Jersey coast on April 4, 1933. What we remember, though, are the horrifying photographs of the Hindenburg engulfed in flames, and the breathless narration of the disaster by Herb Morrison, a reporter for the Chicago radio station WLS. But there are happier stories concerning the Hindenburg.
On October 9, 1936, the Deutsche Zeppelin-Reederei and the Standard Oil Company invited a party of influential businessmen, politicians, and military men aboard the Hindenburg for a ten-hour flight over the fall foliage of New England. Dubbed “The Millionaires’ Flight,” its passengers included heavy hitters like Juan Trippe of Pan American and the ace Eddie Rickenbacker, who headed Eastern Airlines at the time. Also among the passengers was Commander Garland Fulton, U.S. Navy, chief of the Lighter than Air Section of the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics. That’s his ticket for the flight, shown above, preserved among his papers, which are held by the Museum’s Archives Division. As the VIPs enjoyed a superb luncheon, far below on the ground in the wilds of Connecticut, a little girl was about to have the experience of a lifetime. The little girl, who grew up to become an author and opera translator and a dear friend, was Anne “Cookie” Chotzinoff Grossman. Here’s her account, as published in Robert Hedin’s The Zeppelin Reader:
In September or October of 1936, I was six years old, at school in Ridgefield, Connecticut, in those days a small, exceedingly rural town. I was a shy little girl, always trailing behind my 10-year-old brother Blair. One day we were outside during the lunch recess, when a shadow crossed the schoolyard. We all looked up; something huge was floating by. Blair said excitedly, “Hey, that’s the Hindenburg! Let’s follow it!” I hadn’t the faintest idea what he was talking about or what a Hindenburg was, but whenever Blair said “follow”, I followed; so I ran behind him and his friends, trying hard to keep up. We ran across fields and brooks and over stone walls, trying to keep the airship in sight. Blair finally admitted defeat – the Hindenburg was faster than we were – and we made our way back to the school, very late and very dirty, to face angry teachers. I don’t remember what Blair’s punishment was, but I was made to stand at the blackboard and write “I will not follow the Hindenburg” 100 times.
That’s the way I prefer to remember the airship Hindenburg: sailing through a crisp autumn day over New England, with a gang of school kids in hot pursuit…
There are Hindenburg artifacts to see at the Museum. For instance, the stupendous model of the airship (shown above), used in the 1975 Universal film The Hindenburg starring George C. Scott and Anne Bancroft, which hovers over the entrance to the store in the National Mall Building.
We even have an actual Hindenburg passenger on display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center – the Museum’s Bücker Bü-133C Jungmeister was shipped to the United States in August 1936 on the Hindenburg by its owner, the Romanian aerobatic pilot Alexandru Papană for the Cleveland Air Races.
Also at the Udvar-Hazy Center, in the Lighter than Air exhibit case, is a fragment of one of Hindenburg’s aluminum girders, a ladder, a fragment of the airship’s doped fabric, and, shown above, a cup and a saucer, possibly used on the Millionaires’ Flight, survivors of the Hindenburg’s final flight, but smudged by the smoke and flames that signaled the end of passenger airship travel.
Film of the Hindenburg in flight, and the destruction of the airship at Lakehurst, May 6, 1937. National Air and Space Museum Archives Division film VB 01246.
Allan Janus is a museum specialist in the Museum’s Archives Division.